Film Review: At the Devil's Door

A primer on horror genre tricks, director Nicholas McCarthy’s film still feels more like a women’s melodrama than a Freaky Friday Night scream-queen special.

Writer-director Nicholas McCarthy, whose horror film The Pact garnered some attention two years ago, follows up with a self-conscious nod to the form in At the Devil’s Door. You’ve got lights going out, body possessions, levitations, Rosemary’s Baby-type pregnancies, gothic angel statues in the garden, ghosts who don’t like mirrors, and disappearing child figures reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. What you don’t have is a sudden scare to jolt you out of your seat, if that’s what you’re after. Maybe it’s a case of the filmmaker trying too hard.

McCarthy is slick as congealing blood in setting a grim doomsday mood in a milieu of lower-middle-class house evictions, due to the recent mortgage crisis. He’s just as clever in using three fairly well-known female actors, two of whom, Naya Rivera of “Glee” and Catalina Sandino Moreno, play Latin American immigrant sisters trying to make good in what looks like Los Angeles. The Oscar-nominated Moreno, so earnest and wonderful in Maria Full of Grace, portrays Leigh, who is fulfilling the American dream by working as a real estate agent—highly organized, neat as a pin, and with a work ethic to make Benjamin Franklin envious. Rivera convinces as Vera, a freewheeling artist living in a loft, and making it so well that she has a gallery opening. The theme of family, and family love, is hit on early and with frequency here: The sisters’ parents are dead, though we never learn why. (Repression in the homeland? A border-crossing incident?) As Leigh reminds Vera throughout, they are all they have left of family, different though they may be. This is a spin on the earlier The Pact, with its haunted house, sisters and missing parents. Is the director hoping for auteur status in building on the same themes, or is he just out of ideas?

Backstory, way back as it turns out, opens the movie, which may or may not make logical sense once it’s over. A shaky camera (happily the last of that device) comes in close on the face of Ashley Rickards (MTV’s “Awkward”), who’s in the desert with her boyfriend, and then moves on to a grizzled type working a shell game and using her for a kind of deal with the Devil at a crossroads. The plot tie-in, separated by some time-warped decades, is that she may be the daughter of a couple selling their cursed, haunted house with Leigh’s help. The responsible Leigh investigates the house (yes, there is a trip to a basement) and finds much more than she bargained for.

At the Devil’s Door doesn’t pick up steam until late in the story, when Rivera carries the narrative. Like all the women in the film, she is a victim of spirit possession. In her segment, the movie splinters, not ineffectively, into maternal melodrama, with the aid of spookily serious kid actor Ava Acres. The one original contribution here is an ultrasound edited with fiendish, tension-building cleverness. And though it is the occasion for a perhaps unintended hoot of hilarity—“You’ve been in a coma for eight months”—it presses the buttons of universal worry about what may really be in the womb.

Many fine talents are thrown into this witch’s caldron of chopped-off bits from other horror films, but it doesn’t cohere.

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